AI and Mental Health
Artificial Intelligence is offering new opportunities in the field of mental health services and research. However, we must be aware of its limitations too, especially considering that the efficacy of AI still has to be proven in the long term.
Costs of Mental Health Disorders
In 2017, the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) stated that in the United States, 18.9% of the population suffered from some type of mental health disorders, with obvious consequences not only on someone’s quality of life but also on their wallet. In fact, medical disorders have been listed among the most expensive medical conditions to treat – beating even heart conditions. We are talking about a cost of $201 billion spent every year. Plus, if the costs of medication, clinic visits, and hospitalization, are relatively easy to quantify, there are also indirect costs, like lost earnings, that are very difficult to define and estimate. As a result of the high cost associated with these disorders, many people do not seek timely professional help.
The Role of AI
Woebot is an example of an integrated computer program replicating tailored conversations between a patient and their therapist. It has been developed by Dr. Alison Darcy, who is well-aware of her chatbot limitations, as it will never be able to replace human connection. However, it can be a useful tool that offers evidence-based cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), is more affordable, and does not need pre-booking. Another positive side is that Chatbots are also offered in different languages.
Pros and cons
In 2017, the International Committee of the Red Cross stated that, even if chatbots are not expensive tools and are easy to deploy, on the other hand, they are subject to technical glitches and do follow a pre-defined script as they do not have a mind of their own, meaning that they can not necessarily understand the user’s needs. This is why some experts suggested using chatbots and consulting a (human) therapist at the same time.
In any case, the first studies conducted on chatbots have shown some positive results. In fact, one study showed that after just two weeks of using Woebot, the users were feeling less anxious and depressed, and they also tended to “talk” to the chatbot almost every day.
According to some other studies, we react to avatars as if they were real humans, even though we are well-aware that we are interacting with robots. It can feel easier to talk about embarrassing topics with a virtual therapist, rather than with a human one. It is also more likely that users are less scared to feel judged. Also, chatbots are always available.
Towards an AI-Based Mental Healthcare System?
AI-based technologies are becoming more and more common in several industries, including mental health. For example, in this field, the combination of machine learning and clinical network can help provide the right level of emotional support when needed. Of course, in order to make it work, a collaborative approach of therapists, psychiatrists, and coaches is necessary.
The use of digital technology can make behavioural health overall more accessible and convenient, and chatbots can learn from a wide number of patients that a human therapist will probably never have during their career.
Prevention of Social Isolation
Unfortunately, young people can experience social isolation and can find it difficult to build close relationships. Social networking, then, becomes an important aspect of their lives, providing a sense of belonging and encouraging positive communication.
AI can potentially help in making people feel less isolated and more connected, for example by creating a therapeutic environment where users can learn, interact, share their experiences, and get support and validation from others.
AI for Students
Other interesting projects are focusing on developing virtual advisors to provide support and teach stress and anxiety management skills, especially to students. According to a study, users felt that the emotional support provided by the virtual advisor was very helpful during the stressful exam period: virtual therapists can provide students with instant and anonymous support.